Many have said that the United States should apologize for the fact that a U.S. missile destroyed a civilian Iranian airplane. While dismayed at the loss of life, I'm not ready to apologize yet.
There are several reasons. First, Capt. Will C. Rogers 3d, commanding officer of the USS Vincennes, cannot be faulted for his decision to destroy the plane. His ship had been engaged in firing at Iranian vessels just five minutes before the Iran Air flight took off, and it would have been a dereliction of duty to allow a suspicious airplane an unobstructed approach.
Second, this incident will likely blow over without long-term effect. To understand why, think back to May 1987, when 39 American sailors lost their lives in the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark. Despite that tragedy, little changed. American relations with Iraq did not worsen, nor did those with Iran improve. More important, the war between Iraq and Iran went on as though nothing had happened.
For all the headlines it created, the Stark affair had such little importance because the Iraq and American governments both understood the loss of life as an accident — one of those unfortunate results of many forces and much high-tech weaponry in a very small place.
Similarly assuming that the Iran Air downing was accidental, it too will pass without much consequence. The Ayatollah will huff, his hostage-taking lieutenants in Lebanon will puff, but what can they do? Will Tehran start a war with the United States? Not a likely course of action for a government having difficulty in a full-scale war with the enemy it already has. Kill the hostages? Also not likely — why waste them merely for revenge when they serve so well as items for barter, especially as elections near? New terrorist attacks may take place, but that is far from certain.
Third, the spotty information now available raises disturbing questions about Iranian actions. The Iran Air plane appears to have broken every rule in the book: It may have been outside the usual civil air corridor; it was traveling off time; its transponder did not work, and its crew did not reply to the U.S. Navy challenges.
In all likelihood, these mistakes point to nothing worse than ineptitude. After all, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not exactly the sort of place where the planes run on time.
But… there is another interpretation, a less benign one. Given Teheran's emphasis on martyrdom as the supreme military virtue, it is not entirely out of bounds to wonder if the incident was cooked up by desperate Iranian officials. This event occurs at a time when the war is going badly for Iran; when succession struggles wrack the government; and when the populace shows increasing disaffection from the war. In such circumstances, is it not conceivable that the authorities decided to stage a media spectacular to galvanize emotions against "the Great Satan and its Iraqi lackey?"
One circumstance is particularly suspicious. A camera team just happened to be in a small boat in the Persian Gulf and just happened to be taking pictures of the Iran Air flight as it passed by. Iranian television has time and again played a videotape of the plane exploding in mid-air. Very convenient for Iranian television, but no one has explained how that team happened to be at such an unlikely location. And how was it photographing the plane at just the right moment? Was the whole thing staged?
President Reagan has said that he doesn't "go much by what the Iranian say, ever," and he is right. This would not be the Middle East's first wartime lie cut from whole cloth. Two other incidents come to mind. In June 1967, after Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had lost his air force to an Israeli surprise attack, he called King Hussein of Jordan and (according to an authenticated transcript of their conversation) together they cooked up accusations blaming the loss on American and British air support to Israel — making the loss a little more bearable. To Abdel Nasser's question, "Did you say American and Britain or only America?" the answer came, "America and Britain."
More recently, the U.S. raid on Libya in 1986 prompted Moammar Gadhafi to claim his 15-month-old adopted daughter as a victim of the bombing, winning sympathy and making the United States look brutal. But no such daughter had ever existed; she came into being only after her supposed death.
We should start with the assumption that the provocative flight on Sunday was accidental; yet it is important to keep an open mind, for Khomeini and his aides will stop at nothing to win their war against Iraq.
Daniel Pipes author of "The Long Shadow: Culture and Politics in the Middle East," is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and editor of Orbis, a quarterly journal.